Few people go down in history by their childhood nicknames, which is probably for the best. But such was the destiny of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, the emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 A.D. and the son of a much-loved commander of the Roman forces stationed in Germany. The father dressed young Gaius up in a kid-sized legionnaire’s uniform, to the delight of the troops, who dubbed him Caligula, meaning “Little Boots.”
The moniker stuck, although the last thing anyone remembers about Caligula is the cuteness. A couple of on-screen depictions of his reign are indicative. It was presented as the height of decadence in Caligula (1979), the big-budget, pornographic bio-pic produced and directed by Bob Guccione Jr., with Malcolm McDowell as the emperor, featuring numerous Penthouse Pets-of-the-Month, smouldering in lieu of dialogue. (Also, Helen Mirren, minus toga.) I have promised the editors not to embed any video clips from it in this column. Suffice it to say that the film was terrible, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the script, seems to have disowned it just as soon as the check cleared.
Better by far -- indeed, unforgettable -- was John Hurt’s turn as the mad tyrant in “I, Claudius,” the BBC miniseries from 1976. He portrayed Caligula as terrifying and monstrous, yet also strangely pitiful. Power corrupts, and absolute power sounds even more enjoyable. But having every whim met without hesitation does not make the descent into insanity any less agonizing, even for Caligula himself. By the time the emperor is assassinated (at the age of 29, after not quite four years in power), Hurt makes his death seem almost a mercy killing.
The BBC program was adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, who drew in turn from the accounts left by Roman historians -- in particular, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. (It was also an influence on Guccione’s film, if not quite as much as Deep Throat.) Most of the really lurid charges about Caligula come down to us via Suetonius: the incest, the cross-dressing, the plan to name his favorite horse to an important position, his effort to pay soldiers with sea-shells….
And, most damaging of all, Seutonius records that Caligula proclaimed himself to be a god. He had altars to himself set up around the empire so that the public could worship him. Other sources confirm this, including the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo. They indicate that Roman officials put up statues of Caligula in synagogues, and that the emperor even tried (unsuccessfully) to plant his idol in the most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem.
According to Seutonius, the emperor walked around the palace chatting with the other gods. He would ask people whether they thought he was greater than Jupiter. You didn’t have to be a monotheist to find that sort of thing revolting.
But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane -- his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?
In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography, from the University of California Press.
Winterling’s reassessment of the legend of the mad emperor is hardly as contrarian as it may sound. By the 19th century, classicists had enough fresh material to work with (inscriptions on public buildings, for example, and documents of everyday governance) to feel less dependent on the accounts left by Roman authors. They were learning to take the ancient chronicles with a grain of salt. Suetonius, for example, reports things with all the confidence of an eyewitness, but in fact was writing 80 years after Caligula’s death. Evidently he never heard a rumor about the emperor he didn’t record. That makes his tell-all biographies very entertaining, and even useful in a way, but not exactly reliable.
So there were grounds for reasonable doubt. Revisionist accounts of Caligula have appeared from time to time, suggesting that his reign was not wildly different from that of other emperors. When Winterling published his book in 2003, it coincided with the centennial of the landmark study by Hugo Willrich that first made the case for Caligula as rational politician. (This is unlikely to be a total coincidence, but the translated edition says nothing about it one way or the other.) Winterling even expresses concern that some modern accounts have “gone too far in transforming a ruler depicted as immoral and insane into a good one whose actions were rational.”
The figure portrayed in Caligula: A Biography was a rational and competent leader, but “good” is not a word that comes to mind. He was capable, when pushed, of extreme viciousness, ranging from savage humiliation to torture and execution. Making him angry was never a good idea, but neither was trying to flatter him. The targets of his wrath were almost always his fellow aristocrats – which, according to Winterling’s analysis, is a crucial bit of context to keep in mind.
The core of his argument is that even Caligula’s wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).
The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable – even as its limits were undefined.
The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.
Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.
An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?
On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula’s speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: “It shows they knew power was shared at the emperor’s pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time…. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor’s declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.” By “honoring” the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. “Otherwise,” says Winterling, “it would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.”
The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.
But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”
In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves.
Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.
So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel -- to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.
It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor's death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.
So his reign may not have been as surreal as it sounded, but rather a case of realpolitik at its nastiest. Still, it won't be Winterling's portrait that flashes before my mind's eye the next time anyone mentions Caligula. It's a fascinating book, but it can't displace those indelible images of John Hurt in the grip of his delusions, screaming in pain from the voices in his head, and doing terrible things to his sister.
Can one of the most honored historians of the 20th century, the oft-quoted two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote such iconic books as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style of American Politics, actually have a "lost" book? I think so, for I don’t imagine there are more than a handful of Inside Higher Ed readers who can recall the title of Richard Hofstadter’s longest book, and the one that he worked on for the greatest number of years. This is a book that from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s had a huge readership, and yet today is so little-known that David S. Brown’s critically acclaimed intellectual biography of Hofstadter (University of Chicago Press) got the title wrong. Hofstadter’s lost book is The American Republic, a 1,396-page history that he worked on for many years with two talented co-authors, William Miller and Daniel Aaron.
The reason The American Republic is almost unknown today is that it was a college textbook. But it doesn’t deserve oblivion, and should have a place somewhere alongside Hofstadter’s other books.
Hofstadter was, as many know, an academic prodigy. He had articles published in premiere journals during his graduate studies at Columbia University, finished his doctorate at age 26, had it published with the University of Pennsylvania Press two years later, and in 1948, at the age of 32, had his second book published with Alfred A. Knopf. That book, The American Political Tradition, was a surprise success of huge proportions, garnering rave reviews as well as strong sales to the general public. It eventually became a staple for decades in U.S. history courses. The book has sold over one million copies in its 63-year life, an extraordinary record for any academic book.
Why? As historian Jon Wiener has written, even in the 21st century TheAmerican Political Tradition remains relevant: "It opens with a description of an 'increasingly passive and spectatorial' state of mind in postwar America, a country dominated by 'corporate monopoly,' its citizens ‘bereft of a coherent and plausible body of belief’ and adrift in a ‘rudderless and demoralized state.’ ” We’ve arguably gone downhill since that unvarnished analysis, but you can see why people still read Hofstadter to try to understand the United States.
The body of The American Political Tradition is mostly made up of a series of ironic and critical portraits of figures that most Americans — then and now — tend to look on as heroes: Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and others. The very titles of the chapters give you a sense of how Hofstadter did not sell myths but, as David Brown writes, "dissected" them. Consider, for instance, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," or "Franklin Roosevelt: The Patrician as Opportunist."
In 1953, textbook publisher Prentice-Hall accurately perceived from the success of this book that the young Hofstadter was going to be one of the most significant historians of his generation, and made him an offer that he seemingly couldn’t refuse. It probably went something like this: write a big textbook on American history for us with co-authors of your choice, and you’ll not only influence young minds, you’ll earn royalties beyond even what Knopf is paying you (and by this point Hofstadter was probably earning about as much from book royalties as he was from his salary at Columbia).
The American Republic was first published in 1959. Although initially Hofstadter tried to reassure his regular publisher Knopf that the books for Prentice-Hall wouldn’t pull him away from his regular work for long, he was mistaken. In a letter recently uncovered in the Columbia Library archives, Hofstadter wrote, "From 1955 to 59, when I was working on the one & 2-vol. versions, I got little else done." Hofstadter won his first Pulitzer for The Age of Reform (Knopf, 1955), but for a prolific author who usually only took about three years to write a book, it turned out to be a long drought for Knopf until 1963’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which also won a Pulitzer.
For the Prentice-Hall books Hofstadter got to work with two handpicked colleagues, who were also friends, whose areas of expertise nicely balanced his own. One of his co-authors was the pioneering American studies professor Daniel Aaron, who taught at Smith College. In his recent memoir, The Americanist (Aaron is 99 years old this year), he wrote: “One hot New York summer night in 1955, Richard Hofstadter and I, working in his Upper West Side apartment on our American history textbook — both of us too tired to sleep — read aloud Harding’s inaugural address and couldn’t stop laughing.” The fact that the authors laughed uncontrollably at the rhetorical idiocy of an American president is a clue that this book would be different from the patriotic puffery of other textbooks of the time.
The third of the trio was freelance historian William Miller, described by Aaron as "a tough-minded economic and business historian." But, as Aaron admits, "without Hofstadter’s name, I doubt our book would have sold as well as it did." Prentice-Hall made explicit in the breakdown of royalties the importance of the name they knew would sell the books: Hofstadter got 60 percent, while Aaron and Miller each got a comparatively paltry 20 percent. Because of a "flood of adoptions," as Aaron describes it, even that 20 percent "paid for the college educations of my three sons." Hofstadter, who was accustomed to large checks from Knopf, still seemed impressed with the royalties generated by the Prentice-Hall books, which he called "very profitable."
The American Republic revolutionized what an American history text could do. The first edition of Republic was a huge success in spite of its length and high price, and it won publishing industry awards. The second edition was thoroughly revised and in many places completely rewritten from 1968 to 1970, but in the middle of this process Hofstadter was struck with his ultimately fatal illness. Letters between Hofstadter and his co-authors detail how despite the debilitating effects of leukemia and treatment Hofstadter remained as engaged as he could be on the second edition.
Just months before his death Hofstadter wrote to Miller: "I began the summer quite well, and did a good deal of work toward the beginning, much of which I still have been revising these past few weeks. However, I have been running a daily fever of slight dimensions for the better part of the last three weeks." As it turned out, the second edition of Republic was the last book Hofstadter saw through to publication. Copies of the two volumes, bound in blue and emblazoned with a gold outline of the Great Seal of the United States, arrived just weeks before Hofstadter’s death in late 1970.
I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.
Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.
I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. "Old American flag Bailey," as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.
A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:
Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.
Bailey sums up that the "discovery" of America was a "sensational achievement, "but states that "The American continents were slow to yield their virginity."
Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:
When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried NiÃ±a, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.
Today "permanent occupation" probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, "catastrophic."
At the beginning of this exceptionally long narrative, and one quite sophisticated for a textbook, that devastating one word assessment mentally stopped me in my tracks. Although I was in Nigeria, I was still trying to earn my doctorate in art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The problem, however, was that I had plunged into a miasma of theory, largely with "the Jacques," as I came to think of them — Derrida and Lacan. Amidst deep thoughts about language and psychology, some of them perhaps valuable, I had lost my intellectual moorings. I was not only in something of a haze when it came to academic work, but even when it came to real life, practically lived, especially in a place like Nigeria. Experiencing viscerally the terrible effects of a repressive and corrupt military dictatorship stripped away some of my intellectual baggage that seemed less relevant. Some of the things I experienced in Nigeria had also seemed close to catastrophic, and so I understood that word in a way I had not before. Republic’s unsentimental and crisp text communicated how not just individuals but whole nations could fall headlong into folly, with devastating consequences. In retrospect, I was learning lessons not only in writing but in reality from this book.
The American Republic used its vastly larger canvas to cover things barely found in competing books, such as intellectual and cultural history. For instance, there’s an essay-length account of how the idea of a land of riches beyond the known seas had transfixed minds in Europe for many generations before landfall. Setting this up is a firsthand account from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who fought with Cortez and left his description of Tenochtitlan:
[W]e were amazed, and said it was like the enchantments they tell in the legend of Amadis on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream…. Of all these wonders that I then beheld today all is overthrown and lost, nothing left standing.
The book explains that Amadis was a popular fantastic tale of the period, but only one in a long line found in Homer, Plato, and many tales in the middle ages. Some of these tales became obsessions for men like Columbus. As Republic sums up, "successive Mediterranean civilizations took heart from visions of new Edens across the western ocean, visions that materialized at last." This analysis of how myths can combine with ideology to influence history is typical of the sophisticated approach of the book.
In a book with three authors, it’s difficult to be completely certain which passages are mainly Hofstadter’s. But some good guesses can be made. Hofstadter was, as Aaron wrote, "a political and cultural historian" — and those two broad overlapping areas are the long spine of The American Republic. The sections of economic analysis are, of course, primarily by Miller, and the sections on cultural topics, like Edgar Allen Poe and American art, are mostly by Aaron. But each gave suggestions to the others, and at times didn’t just edit but seem to have written passages in the areas of the other authors. As the freelance author, Miller seems to have had more time to write than the others, and seems to have contributed a good deal in Hofstadter’s areas.
Hofstadter was a master of the short analytical sketch, bristling with telling details. In Republic these short sketches are woven into a larger narrative whole. In Brown’s intellectual biography he calls The American Political Tradition Hofstadter’s best book, not because it’s an original piece of archival research (which was not Hofstadter’s strength), but because it’s "a striking example of revisionist history in the best sense," marked by an "aphoristic style," "expressive sense of humor" and "clear and unsentimental thinking." Brown also demonstrates that Tradition has a compelling analysis of how "national identity is frequently the offspring of historical mythology." For some passages of The American Republic, I would argue that similar assessments can be made.
More examples of likely Hofstadter passages from Republic make the case that the book was not only superior to its competitors at the time, but in some cases superior — or at least more vivid — than many textbooks covering the same material today. On Calvinism and predestination:
It may seem odd that a faith so paralyzing in its implications, a faith that saved the few and forever damned the rest, making eternal bliss dependent upon the arbitrary act of God, should prove so satisfying to so many. Yet this stern Protestant creed unleashed a special kind of energy.
On the unintended consequences of the Declaration of Independence:
Like all great political documents, the Declaration of Independence instantly took on a life of its own, consistent with the hopes and aspiration of all men under fetters, not merely white men in the America of 1776…. In our own time, among colonial peoples abroad and the repressed at home, the Declaration continues to serve the cause of revolution as well as social and political equality.
On the tensions between the rise of democracy and the rise of higher education in the 19th century:
Nondenominational colleges in particular were assailed as seats of atheism and aristocracy. Clearly, the "rise of the common man" by no means assured a more liberal education; indeed, it often bred intolerance and anti-intellectualism.
On Manifest Destiny:
American bombast in the capital, brashness in Texas, and bumptiousness in the Pacific Coast naturally made expansion the leading issue in the impending national elections.
And Republic uses President Harding’s own words to show how dim some occupants of the White House have been:
I can’t make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side and they seem right, and then — God! — I talk to the other side and they seem just as right…. I know somewhere there is a book that will give me the truth, but, hell, I couldn’t read the book.
Hofstadter was called for most of his career a "consensus historian," which was imprecise because he didn’t often celebrate consensus, he usually critiqued it. In any case, by the time the final paragraphs of Republic were being written the United States was torn by anti-Vietnam War protests and urban riots, countered by crackdowns by the police and armed forces. It seemed not only as if consensus might be breaking up, but as if a national disaster might be in the making. According to The American Republic, "the deepening mood of desperation in the United States had suffused the awareness even of the coldest conservative minds." But during all of this the television played on endlessly, as analyzed in this passage that was likely the last that Hofstadter wrote for the book, on its final page, perhaps from his hospital bed:
Television, indeed, brought all of life into focused images, turning individual persons and groups into media performers: combat teams in Vietnam, starving children in Biafra, Chicago rioters, college students and presidents, Cabinet officers and local officials. The poet as well as the politician grew solicitous of his “image” and (the cynical might say) was sometimes captured by it. Radicals threatened with imprisonment, alleged murderers, celebrities from the world of sport and entertainment competed for “prime time” on the “boob tube.” On late-hour talk shows, a famous Senator, novelist, or scholar might appear with a prize-fighter, pop-singer, quarterback, and movie actress. The vast unseen audience wanted simultaneously to be amused, thrilled, informed, and edified.
The very ease with which any opinion from the most shocking and heterodox to the most reactionary could receive a hearing in some branch of the communications media might have indicated to radicals left and right that the “Establishment” was not exactly tottering. The threats and warnings, and the strategies for upheaval or repression, produced no permanent “armies of the night” or guerrillas in the hills. But mounting episodes of violence throughout the ‘60s, and the conviction increasingly voiced by black and white rebels that America could only be cleansed by a holocaust alarmed the nation. Sporadic riots and bombings did not constitute a revolution, but the indeterminate size and representativeness of the alienated gave no assurance that a revolution was an impossibility.
Many textbooks would have settled for concluding bromides, but Hofstadter instead undertook an analysis of the mass media that still stands up. And if the rest of it didn’t predict the future, it expressed with intensity and cogency where the nation was in the year it was written.
For me, because of the combined shocks of Nigeria and Hofstadter, I switched my dissertation topic from a painfully vague theoretical epic on the sublime in art to a more focused analysis of the pretensions of presidential commemoration in the United States, which was eventually published as a book. Impressed by The American Republic, on my return I bought a new American history textbook, because it was clear that as advanced as Republic was for 1970 there were some areas where it was out of date.
I naÃ¯vely anticipated that it would be as gripping to read as Hofstadter, and when I was disappointed on that score came to appreciate what he had contributed to the textbook genre — an edge and grim wit that other books usually lacked. But although Republic did more than competitors of the time to focus on the lives of ordinary people in addition to elites, the new history texts in useful ways gave even more space to the experiences of Americans of different walks of life.
It was clear that the "old American flag Bailey" approach of sometimes close to blind patriotism was no more. Even though Bailey’s book title still lives on even today, decades after The American Republic died, it has been almost completely rewritten by Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David Kennedy and others to reflect contemporary scholarship — and an approach that is much closer to Hofstadter’s. Almost all American history textbooks today were probably indirectly influenced to some degree by his approach — although Hofstadter himself would certainly say that larger trends in the field were more responsible.
Co-author Daniel Aaron visited Hofstadter in the hospital a week before he died in late October of 1970, and wrote, "Propped in a chair beside his bed and fearfully emaciated … he had the look of a deserted man who was already seeing what we couldn’t see." In a larger sense, that had been true for many years when it came to Hofstadter and American history. I’m not the only one who believes that in the future we will be turning to Hofstadter’s books more rather than less to try to understand where we are, and where we’re going. And I’ll still be getting out, along with Hofstadter’s other books, the old volumes of The American Republic that I got from a used bookstore after I returned from Nigeria, browsing through them to see what I might learn about the present from Hofstadter’s clear view of the past.